Welcome to the January edition of Ask Dr. Emily!

We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Neuhaus, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format.

We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Neuhaus will do her best to answer them each month. Send your questions to theautismblog@seattlechildrens.org.

Q: I often feel judged by people when I’m out in public with my child. What advice do you have for me?

A: So many parents and caregivers describe situations like this – they may be out at the grocery store, attending a birthday party, or at the mall, when their child has a meltdown. This happens to all caregivers and kids – autism or not – and it’s never easy. In these moments, parents often feel a lot of judgment from bystanders along with pressure to explain their child’s behavior, and they wonder how to do this in a way that feels comfortable.

 From my perspective, there’s no one right way to handle this situation, and every caregiver will choose what feels best for them and their child. My biggest piece of advice is to spend a few moments thinking about how you’d like to respond to these experiences ahead of time. If you can come up with a few sentences or a short response that feels good to you and then have that ready, that can take off a lot of pressure in the moment!

 What you decide to share with folks who see your child having a hard time is completely up to you, and can even change day-to-day with your energy level. Although parents sometimes feel pressure to share private information about their child as a way to “explain” their behavior, know that you are never required or obligated to share anything about your child just because someone else is curious. While some parents will want to share more openly (e.g., “He’s got autism”), other parents will choose not to – either approach is okay. It’s also fine to have different responses for different people in your life. For example, you might choose to share more information with a family friend who’s hosting a birthday party where you child has a tantrum, but less information with a stranger who happens to witness a tantrum at the grocery store.

But what to say in those tricky moments? If you do want to offer an explanation during a difficult moment, one approach is to offer a description of the behavior in a way that’s normalizing (rather than judging) and can help model to bystanders how they should view your child’s behavior in a compassionate way. Along with this, it can be helpful to share something concrete that you would like the people around you to do. For instance, if it would be helpful to have some space or privacy, feel free to say that. Let’s take an example – a tantrum or meltdown in the middle of a family gathering. Depending on your comfort level, you might say something like, “It’s getting pretty crowded in here, and it looks like ____ is having a hard time. We’re working on how to stay calm when it gets loud and crowded, but it looks like we’ve hit the limit for the day. When this happens, the best thing we can do is…. give some quiet space to calm down/offer him a snack/ask if he needs a break/say goodbye and head home.” This style lets you acknowledge the difficulty that’s taking place, show compassion for your child, and tell others what you need from them. But, it’s just one approach — find what feels genuine and right for you.

A last point – if you can, consider building up your community of parents and caregivers who know how you feel in these moments. You’re not alone in this experience, and finding a friendly circle of parents can provide emotional support, practical strategies, and a break from judgment. Best wishes to you!!